Shaun The Sheep Movie
Aardman have never made a film I didn’t like, and the pinnacle of their work, Chicken Run, remains one of my most beloved animated films ever (and it is Chicken Run! Wallace and Gromit was the stepping stone to branching out!). There is something innately charming and intriguing about the claymation process, the difficulty involved in it and the precision it requires, that just lifts full scale film productions involving the technique to a higher level. Aardman have consistently achieved this, and made some great films around the process as well. But, I have to say that I was almost entirely ignorant of Shaun The Sheep – I had to be reminded that he originated in a Wallace and Gromit film – having never watched any of the TV show. I was hesitant to give what appeared to be a mostly kid-focused movie a shot, with Aardman’s previous work having a slightly more grown up feel to them in large parts, at least it seemed to me in comparison to the promotional material for Shaun The Sheep. But, thanks to the urging of my girlfriend, who routinely demonstrates a knack for finding decent films I might otherwise not have watched, I did go along and see it.
Shaun (Justin Fletcher), bored of the humdrum existence that he lives on the farm with the rest of the flock, inadvertently sets in motion a train of events that lead to the Farmer (John Sparks) becoming lost and amnesiac in the “Big City”. Setting out to find him with the flock and dog Bitzer (Sparks again), Shaun must both locate his owner and avoid being corralled by the villainous animal catcher Trumper (Omid Djalili).
I think that something like Shaun The Sheep really does have the ability to appeal to everyone. It’s harmless, understandable comedy in animated form, featuring a cavorting sheep and his madcap adventures. Young or old can appreciate the kind of thing that is on offer here, Aardman’s typically diverse production quality, which manages to create time for frolics, even while throwing in enough motif’s, references and deeper issues that are bound to keep the older crowd going as well.
In terms of what is actually going on in the movie, Shaun The Sheep is formulaic to the extreme, and I mean that in the sense of what you always tend to see whenever a popular TV show decides to make the leap from small to big screen. The cast of characters is uprooted and has to go to a new location, with lots of new challenges to overcome, an antagonistic character of almost comical motivation is introduced to give the plot something to focus on, a few heartfelt moments to reinforce a message of love/peace/family/home etc are inserted, a few contemporary songs (the Foo Fighters’ inclusion here was a bit out of place I felt) and the status quo is re-established by the conclusion. If you’re looking for a plot that is whipsmart and engaging, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Shaun The Sheep isn’t taking any kind of risk with its structure, which adheres to what already exists.
The Aardman team is so accomplished and comfortable with claymation that it should come as no surprise really that Shaun The Sheep is another fantastic piece of work in that regard, and it goes doubly so considering that all of the emoting and such has to be performed by that side of things. In every furrowed brow and worried face, done with such subtly and skill, Aardman pulls it off yet again. And they take all of that work on those fantastic characters and put them into another world that has been created with panache and care, be it the farm or be it the “Big City”. Those worlds come to a life in a visually explosive way, with every set-piece – restaurant, prison or hairdresser – beautifully realised and fully formed, with a myriad of little details to add to the authenticity. In motion and in still sets, Aardman still has the goods.
More importantly, Shaun The Sheep is still a fun film. It won’t engage you or be as memorable as Chicken Run, The Pirates or Wallace and Gromit, but it offers a decent 90 minutes of entertainment, which makes full use of the format and the claymation process. And it has that unique hook that other Aardman productions do not have: the appeal of being a silent film. And unlike the over-rated sort of neo-silent film, like The Artist, Shaun The Sheep actually feels like it is better off as a silent film, the characters only making guttural noises or growls to express themselves, if they choose to at all.
That makes Shaun The Sheep a production that has to work a bit harder to pull everything together, but with a solid bedrock of experience in TV, the production team are clearly not all that bothered. And the result, where physical comedy, subtle movements to express emotion and the right musical cues are executed, is a really fantastic silent production, full of slapstick and ridiculousness, in all of the right measures.
Basing itself around that narrative of Shaun looking for the Farmer, Shaun The Sheep takes the opportunity to move seamlessly into the kind of sketch comedy compilation that a lot of comedy films like to mould themselves into recently (I remember 2013’s The Heat managing this very well). Individual scenes serve as individual moments for specific silliness and rampant stupidity, set-pieces that mean that the production team don’t have to be concerned with keeping the plot contained and strung together. The flock of sheep trying to blend in at the restaurant, The Farmer turning into a celebrity hairstylist and Trumper’s repeated exaggerations of his task all work really well, providing giggles in place of any kind of more serious plot.
Trumper himself, somehow “voiced” by brilliant comedian Omid Djalili, is a great creation. It’s an easy thing to go for, an animal catcher, but Trumper is so jumped up, obnoxious and full of himself, that you have no problem going along with him as a sort of jobsworth style bad guy, who thinks he’s James Bond even as he grossly oversteps his authority. It helps that his level of delusion transcends into the realm of the creepy, as he mistakes a disguised couple of sheep as an attractive women for him to leer over.
Trumper is at the heart of perhaps the film’s best set-piece, everything revolving around the dog pound/animal shelter, which rapidly turns into a parody/satire of films as diverse as The Great Escape and Silence of the Lambs. Even with something as simple as a rather deranged looking dog continually staring at the heroes (which featured a great mid-credits postscript) works well as a recurring joke.
There really isn’t all that much else to say about the substance of Shaun The Sheep. It’s very innocent, almost vaudevillian comedy, with a very British twang to it as well, more Wallace and Gromit than anything else Aardman has come up with. Shaun The Sheep, in its tone, style and look, calls back to classic British comedy from decades past, utilising the latest cinematic techniques to reinvigorate very old and well worn ideas. In the process, it also manages to touch on a number of wildly different issues: rural life versus urban, the vapidness of sudden celebrity, getting old with dignity, and making sure to leave time to enjoy the simple things in life.
While Shaun The Sheep won’t be the best remembered of Aardman’s work, and part of you might well feel like you are simply watching an extended version of an episode of the TV show. You can’t really do anything about that I suppose, the Wallace and Gromit movie had some of the same issues. But Shaun The Sheep has its laughs, has its great moments of visual and physical comedy, and has that great production work from Aardman, which could almost be described as worth the cost of entry alone. There will be no great lasting impression made here, but Shaun The Sheep is more than capable of providing a decent and well-enjoyed 90 minutes of entertainment. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of StudioCanal).